Pictured: Craig Mills, Head of Operations at North Coast 500 Ltd, Chris Taylor, Regional Leadership Director, VisitScotland, Councillor Maxine Smith, Chair of Highland Council’s Tourism Committee, Anna Miller, Head of Tourism at Highlands & Islands Enterprise.
North Coast 500 (NC500) has teamed up VisitScotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council, Police Scotland and a range of other key stakeholders to plan the road to recovery for North Highland tourism in 2021 and beyond.
At the latest business group webinar led by NC500 earlier this week, tourism and community leaders discussed plans for the re-emergence of tourism from early 2021 in response to the ongoing global pandemic.
The group is now looking into the practical measures and solutions needed to help deliver a balance between public safety and economic recovery in the North Highlands, including further investment in infrastructure.
NC500 launched the series of webinars this summer to actively engage businesses and help address any public safety concerns surrounding the re-opening the North Highlands to visitors during the autumn, winter and beyond.
Over three quarters of people who put their travels plans on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic are expected to return to the iconic North Coast 500 in the year ahead after travel restrictions are lifted by the Scottish Government, according to NC500’s most recent visitor survey.
Significant change in how Scots and other UK nations travel as a result of the pandemic could help ensure the speedy recovery of the NC500, businesses and communities along the route during these challenging times.
When it is safe to travel, NC500 will once again reach out it its global audience to promote responsible and sustainable tourism in the North Highlands, including over 23 million social media followers, one million annual web users, a mailing list of over 37,000 people and 3,700 personal NC500 members, up 1,000 over the same period last year.
Scotland’s world-leading NC500 tourist route marks its fifth anniversary this year.
What began as an initiative to bring some fresh opportunities to the area was last year estimated to have boosted the economy by £22.89 million and created around 179 full-time jobs, but all this is now at risk.
Craig Mills, Head of Operations at North Coast 500 Ltd, said:
“It’s vitally important that we continue to work with our business partners and key stakeholders across the North Highlands to help deliver a balance between public safety and economic recovery in the region in the short and longer term.
“As part of this process, we’re continuing to follow the advice and guidance issued by the Scottish Government during the pandemic.
“We will only encourage people to travel from different parts of Scotland when it is safe to do so.
“Our recent NC500 visitor survey shows that a significant number of visitors are already rescheduling their plans to visit the NC500 into 2021 and beyond.
“This really is a positive sign for the re-emergence of the tourism industry in the North Highlands.
“We look forward to welcoming back visitors from all parts of Scotland and the rest of the UK when the go-ahead is given by the Scottish Government.”
VisitScotland Regional Leadership Director, Chris Taylor, added:
“Due to Covid-19, there is evidence that a new, homegrown audience is discovering and enjoying Scotland’s more remote wild areas and locations, such as the NC500, which is fantastic.
“It is encouraging to hear of strong demand into 2021 with consumers continuing to seek out the stunning scenery and landscapes for which the North of Scotland is famous.
“As the national tourism organisation, we are in a strong position to guide, influence and offer advice to our visitors.
“We are always mindful of highlighting responsible and sustainable tourism messaging in our marketing and this is going to be even more important for the Highlands – and Scotland as a whole – in the future and this is a core part of our recovery plan.
“It is imperative that we get the balance right between keeping people – both visitors and members of local communities – safe but also supporting the scores of amazing tourism businesses that are so crucial in making the North Highlands a must-visit, must-return destination.
“Tourism is a force for good and if managed responsibly, sustains communities in every corner of Scotland, creates jobs, tackles depopulation and improves the wellbeing of everyone who experiences it.”
Over two thirds of the tourism firms on the NC500 are also set to re-open and welcome visitors back when it is safe to travel in response to NC500’s most recent coronavirus business impact survey.
A record 185 tourism businesses from across Inverness-shire, the Black Isle, Easter Ross, Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness responded to the survey.
Accommodation providers, food and drink outlets, retail operators, outdoor and visitor attractions hope that the eventual easing of lockdown measures in Scotland will mean that the North Highlands could see a return of the tourism season in early 2021.
Chair of Highland Council’s Tourism Committee, Councillor Maxine Smith, said:
“Although we’re very aware that things are difficult for many businesses at present, there is also a need for us to look forward to and prepare for a future when things improve.
“Part of this is the provision of new infrastructure which was a subject covered in detail at the Council’s last tourism committee meeting.
“Plans are being developed which should guide future investment in infrastructure by both the public sector and communities themselves.
“We also envisage that this will create some opportunities for business diversification in areas such as the provision of overnight stops for motorhomes which could be a welcome boost to businesses as they emerge from the pressures brought on by the pandemic.”
Anna Miller, Head of Tourism at Highlands & Islands Enterprise, added:
“Tourism has been hit heavily this year, but it will also be key to our region’s economic recovery.
“The resilience and commitment shown by tourism and hospitality businesses in the past months has been incredible.
“They have continued to face new and evolving challenges as varying levels of restrictions and operating guidelines have been introduced.
“Despite these challenges we have seen a determination from our region’s businesses to continue to adapt, innovate and provide memorable and enjoyable experiences for visitors.
“The North Highlands offers a distinct and exiting product and its popularity is likely to continue over the coming years.
“Making the most of this opportunity, bringing benefits for local businesses and people around the region in a safe and sustainable way, requires collaboration between agencies, industry and communities.
“We are very pleased to be part of this collaboration and look forward to supporting the destination’s role in contributing to recovery in our tourism sector.”
Donnie Mackinnon, Inspector, Highland and Islands Road Policing at Police Scotland, said:
“The safety of those who live in our communities and use the road network as well as those who visit the Highlands is of paramount importance.
“It is therefore imperative that Scottish Government guidance is adhered to and the public familiarise themselves with the restrictions that are in place for our safety and wellbeing.
“We recognise that the Highlands has much to offer and when the time is right, we know people will be eager to visit.
“I urge all road users to drive/ride with care, obey Highway Code advice on country and single-track roads and promote positive use of road space by being tolerant and respectful.”
The next NC500 business group webinar is expected to take place in January 2021.